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Welcome to the era of the ‘Anthropocene’, which refers to the current geological age, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment. From the beginning of the industrial revolution, the new ways of faster and cheaper production have re-defined design and consumption. While we were pleased with the increased welfare and easier access to products over the years, nobody has questioned the impact of the growing mass production. It took years and (is even a bit too late) to realize the cost of some industries’ and companies’ irresponsible working conditions. It is no coincidence that our generation is witnessing such a climate catas- trophe as a consequence of all omission over the decades.
As Kristalina Georgieva, CEO of the World Bank, stated during the last United Nations Summit, “we are clearly the last generation that can change the course of climate change, but we are also the first generation with its consequences.” No doubt that we all feel more worried but also more responsible than ever.
Among all other industries, fashion is one of the biggest contributors to environmental changes. It covers 10% of total carbon emissions –when even the aviation industry represents less than 2%– and is responsible for 20% of global water crisis and chemical pollution. Furthermore, four out of the five countries most affected by rising sea levels are fashion’s biggest manufacturing hubs.
Practically speaking, for one t-shirt’s production 2,700 liters of water is needed, which is equivalent to 2 years of water consumption for an average human. Considering the fact that worldwide 1.1 billion people have no access to drinking water source, would not be wrong to claim that fashion is a thirsty business.
Additionally, just as worrying as the industrial impact, are the statistics on consumption and waste. Each year, the apparel industry produces 100 billion items, where the global average use of one item is only seven times. More worrying data is that, according to the Global Fashion Agenda, 75% of the world’s clothing eventually ends in a landfill, within the same production year.
With all these worrying facts, all eyes have turned on fashion industry. 2018 shall be remembered as the year fashion got serious about sustainability. It has become a global conversation. From the Houses of Parliament to the United Nations, even the royal family; world leaders are taking notice and demanding the fashion industry act. It was not a surprise that at the latest climate summit and at the World Economic Forum’s annual Davos gathering, leading fashion brands were invited for the first time. The usual agenda of financial issues of the day, is expended with the environmental concerns and impact of fashion industry, with the participation of fashion players.
Fashion is a huge industry with some major impacts, however, it has the power to inspire people, and can be used to spread and communicate transformation. Fashion can tell the story of climate change and take attention to this environmental issue, while inviting consumers into this agenda.
Within the fashion industry, the magical blue world of denim has a unique place among all other fashion materials. It is timeless, seasonless and has the power to age with us over time, carrying our memories on.
When we revisit its roots, denim was originally made for durability. During its history it has been the most activist fashion item. It was the symbol and dress code of revolutions and democratic movements of previous generations. So, it is true that denim has a larger social and ecological impact compared to other textile materials. It has the power to unite and let you express yourself, no matter who you are and what you believe.
However, it is one of the filthiest businesses in the whole fashion industry, with cotton and indigo being the main ingredients. To produce one pair of jeans, up to 7,000 liters of water is used. Indigo dyeing is one of the most polluting process and not to forget the impact of industrial wash process to give the final look on the jeans. More than a billion pairs of jeans are sold globally each year, while less than 1% of materials is recycled into new clothing.
Recently, denim has started to be defined not only by the fit, wash, weight or color; but also, by the parameters of how environmentally friendly it is.
We live in a world where fashion mainly serves for instant appearance and fast consumption, where the quality and durability of clothing are not the main reasons for purchasing clothing. However, denim originally stands for a longer lifespan and slow consumerism. With rising awareness on impact of denim production and the need for transparency on supply chain, brands have acknowledged the importance of looking for solutions. New technologies on eco-friendly yarns and smart processes designed for saving water and energy, have enabled the industry to introduce ‘sustainable denim’.
Talking about sustainable denim, Nudie Jeans clearly is the first brand to flash back. They were the first to introduce this term, in times when it was not such a trendy buzz word.
So, we’ve asked Eliina Brinkberg, Environmental Manager of Nudie Jeans, for their approach on sustainable denim. “Since the beginning, sustainability – both environmental and social – has been the essence of Nudie Jeans. With a “wear, tear and repair” mindset rather than fast fashion, we provide and maintain a tradition true to the fabric’s history and characteristics. With a holistic approach to sustainability, and by including sustainability in our core processes of our daily operations, we strive to take responsibility in all aspects of the products life. From the design to raw materials, throughout production and by prolonging the life of the garments by offering free repairs, reuse and for the end of life though our recycling program.
As an industry, we need to work together on a number of issues. The climate needs a stronger focus – we all need to work towards reducing emissions created in the production. We need to see a more rapidly change towards the use of sustainable fibers and we need to include circularity in all decision making processes. From designing for longevity and recyclability, to an increased use of recycled materials, to prolonging the user phase of garments by exploring new business models of renting and second hand, to build up infrastructures for collection and sorting of textile –and of course to speed up the development of textile-to-textile recycling. We also need to work together on the issue of living wages, where a wage possible to live on must be indisputable in a sustainable development of the textile industry.”
Another young and successful pioneer in the sustainable denim area is Mud Jeans, dedicated to low impact denim. The company also came up with a new business model which tackles consump- tion: They ask a simple question: how about leasing jeans, instead of buying a new one? Dion Vijgeboom, co-founder and designer of Mud Jeans, shared his comments on denim and how Mud Jeans has been created: “Denim has a permanent position within the fashion industry. The importance and prominence vary from time to time and era to era, but without a doubt it is one of the main pillars in fashion. Due to its technical specifications, the product itself has not seen any revolutionary innovations; a pair of jeans 20 years ago is not much different from the ones offered today. This has caused the product to become a commodity with a lot of attention for price instead of applying new technology. Knowing that traditional denim manufacturing is a polluting operation we decided to apply revolutionary techniques to overhaul the industry. Along with like-minded partners within the industry we developed techniques to reduce (or even eliminate) the use of large amounts of water, chemicals and natural resources. And the journey is ongoing; we creatively apply processes previously not used in the jeans and fashion industry. With this we are able to develop products that have a whole lot of novelty at the ‘inside’ but still remain pure authentic denim from the outside.”
Another success story to highlight is written by G-Star RAW. The creator of “the most sustainable jeans ever” is obviously aiming to lead the world of sustainable denim. The brand will be celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, but with their passion on sustainable practices within the denim industry, they are more like a young start-up. Sustainability & Communications Director, Frouke Bruinsma, shared with Luxiders Magazine their integrated approach on sustainability, during the last Copenhagen Fashion Summit: “For G-Star RAW, sustainability is a mindset and fully integrated into the heart if our business. We are looking at the whole process. It is all about making it right. Knowing the size and impact of fashion waste, we focus on making good quality garments in a circular and transparent way. Cotton plays a major role and is essential for denim. 80% of our collection is made of cotton. The only way to fix that is to focus on recycling, closing the loop and innovative design. From the day we have started, we did not actively communicate what we are doing on sustainability. Now it is the moment to explain sustainability better to the consumer and let them understand the production steps and materials, in a transparent way. It is time to define sustainability as the new standard. We try to create a future to be a circular business, with a dedication that we all do this to impact nature positively.”
Such brands created with an ethical consciousness at their core definitely do their best, but how about the big players? We see some significant activities in both fast fashion and luxury segment, with ri- sing pressure and consumers’ changing attitudes. Additionally, a collaborative movement supported by some major institutions is the key to change the game. In 2018, a group of 43 brands, retailers and suppliers teamed up with the United Nations to launch a charter for climate action within the industry. Companies including luxury groups like Kering, as well as fast fashion players like H&M and Zara parent Inditex, agreed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 30% by 2030. This is a big sign for fashion industry’s shift and future.
When we look at retail, we also see that it is a hot topic for consumers. The value of the ethical clothing market has increased by 20%, according to the Ethical Consumer report. According to Business of Fashion and McKinsey’s latest State of Fashion report, nine out of ten Generation Z consumers believe companies have a responsibility to address environment and social issues. We also see that challenger brands, like Patagonia or Everlane, have more power and social media impact on the consumer, than legacy or traditional brands.
However, a recent report by the Global Fashion Agenda states that “fashion companies are not implementing sustainable solutions fast enough to counterbalance the negative environmental and social impacts of the rapidly growing fashion industry”. Now the next big thing is, how sustainability needs to be a driver of business value, not an add-on.
We’ve asked valuable opinions of Adriano Goldschmied, in other words the Godfather of denim who is currently dedicated to sustainable innovations within denim industry, on how he defines sustainable denim and the challenges he foresees: “It is a grey area as there are no clear criteria to define a sustainable product. Many brands claim to be sus- tainable because just one process of manufacturing is sustainable. To me, we can define a product sustainable when all the components and the processes are focus on sustainability, starting from fiber, spinning, indigo, dyeing system, finishing, manufacturing and washing, inclu- ding also all the components and packaging. To overcome the challenges, innovation and technology are the way to make a sustainable and a better product. This requires a lot of energy and resources. No one can do it by himself and to change the world the challenge is to learn to work all together.”
With the changing aspect on retail and consumers, designers have also started to look into design with a wider perspective. It is promising to see that recyclability, biodegradability and the ‘second life’ of products are being evaluated at the design stage by some eco-conscious designers. A new term is being introduced; guilt-free fashion, where the waste is redefined as the new gold, and nature as the main source of inspiration.
We’ve interviewed Sue Barrett, future trend specialist and denim design consultant, on changing consumer trends and sustainable design: “Drastic re-thinking of how we live and how we perceive success and freedom will become part of a new mindset that offers enriched living but with a reduced global footprint. Until now, the bigger your house/ car/wardrobe was related to your success. Now nature-enriched (and enriching), anti-glamour, raised quality products are the new luxury.”
Extending the life of a product, changing perception of trash as treasure, is now one of the fashion industry’s fastest-growing sectors. The secondhand clothes market in the United States has grown 21 times faster than retail sales of new clothing over the past three years. Endorsing high quality products that are made to last and become integral to our lives, are key themes for Nudie Jeans and Patagonia, with their tagline “Repair is a radical act”.
Extreme digital eco-wardrobes are emerging to feed our social media hunger yet leave no trace on the environment. Directional retailers such as IT in China and Carling in Norway offer digitally rendered hi-end garments that can be bought and moulded onto selfies and uploaded to our social media feed. A proactive solution to shift the trend in influencer-led social media feeds, through highlighting the irony of ‘new in’ garments worn only once for social media staged shoots. An extension of this is the emergence of gallery stores, or non-product C-shelf stores which create an elevated styling and shopping experience and naturally raises the perception of product as something to be prized and not thrown away.
We know we all play a part in this story in some way. You don’t have to be a sustainability expert to realize that even baby steps in conscious design + production processing are better than doing nothing at all. As Andrew Morgan, the director of documentary The True Cost states, “when we buy something it is a moral act. And there is a chain reaction of consequences. So, let’s begin to be more mindful to choose things that actually support life and not take it away”.
With evolving trends of consumers and awareness on consumption and waste, some new design models have been arisen. We are used to terms like Re-cycle, Re-pair, Re-use; but we’re recently introduced by Re-made jeans: Re/Done has created a new way of designing jeans made from vintage Levi jeans, and set a new trend which has inspired other brands. The art of rebuilding vintage jeans has opened a new page in denim history. They have also proved how cool sustainability can be.
The road is long and tough; however, there are reasons to be optimistic for a cleaner future of denim. A shift toward sustainability appears to be happening among the brands and the whole sourcing industry, who is aiming to resonate with the changing consumer needs. Knowing the value of collaboration and innovation, the denim industry is moving further to influence the fashion world.
Luxiders Magazine Contributor